Occupy Wall Street redefines the American dream

Thus did a handful of rapacious citizens come to control all that was worth controlling in America. Thus was the savage and stupid and entirely inappropriate and unnecessary and humorless American class system created. Honest, industrious, peaceful citizens were classed as bloodsuckers, if they asked to be paid a living wage. And they saw that praise was reserved henceforth for those who devised means of getting paid enormously for committing crimes against which no laws had been passed. Thus the American dream turned belly up, turned green, bobbed to the scummy surface of cupidity unlimited, filled with gas, and went bang in the noonday sun.

Kurt Vonnegut
God Bless You Mr. Rosewater

Artists and novelists are our canaries in the coalmine. They often draw their inspiration from a keen observation of human behavior and the current events in the world around them. In Vonnegut’s case, he saw clearly that we were living in a world of illusion. Forty-six years later, as if waking from a bad dream, we are finally realizing the truth he observed in his 1965 novel God Bless You Mr. Rosewater. The American Dream—the naïve notion that with hard work anyone can achieve great wealth—is basically over. The myth of the U.S. as the land of opportunity still persists, but it is clearly mistaken. A 2010 study by the OECD confirms that the United States now has less social mobility than the Nordic countries and Canada.

After decades of dubious political policy decisions, and financial manipulation by the 1% that left the rest of us with stagnant wages, high unemployment, and crumbling infrastructure, the United States has crashed to the ground with a thud. And the good news is that the old notion of the American Dream based on hyper individualism and materialistic values may have crashed with it. It may be that this old notion of the American Dream has kept us from creating a workable economy that serves everyone.

Having been drained of our resources by the wealthy and powerful, with the eager participation of shortsighted, self-serving politicians of every stripe, we are finally waking from what appears to be a decades long drunken stupor. We may feel hung over, but finally we are sober. Whether we like it or not, the era too big houses, too big SUVs, binge consumption, and massive credit card debt is over. Collectively, we have tremendous anxiety about the future, but many of us are breathing a sigh of relief. All that spending and real estate/stock market speculation really didn’t make us happier or improve our quality of life, and the wars that have taken our sons and daughters have not made us any safer.

Greed is not Good

Our binge lasted decades because as a nation we bought into the “greed is good” religion pushed by corporations, Wall Street, Fox News, and the prosperity-focused mega church movement. Our political system, awash in corporate money, enabled the systematic dismantling of economic protections, such as the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933. Finally, government regulating agencies turned a blind eye to the dangerous practices of banks and the financial markets. Wall Street ran amuck. The economic meltdown of 2008 was inevitable.

Three years later, the Occupy Wall Street movement is gaining momentum because most Americans now understand that the American Dream is only for the wealthy and well connected. But, the Occupy movement is demanding more than equal opportunity. We are questioning the American religion of free market capitalism, and the extreme individualism that fueled the corporate takeover of America. We are exploring a new morality, one that acknowledges our interdependence with each other, and insists, no matter how much the right screams ”socialism” that the least among us deserve to have their basic needs met. We are acknowledging that we are always indebted to others for what we have, and that we have mutual responsibilities to each other as neighbors and citizens. We are challenging the insanity of letting our economy be determined by a tiny group of self-serving individuals and their political minions, who care nothing about the rest of us—the 99%. Finally, we are exposing and challenging the pervasive corrupting influence of big money in government. Whether K Street knows it or not, the writing is on the wall. Americans are fed up with their influence drowning out the needs of ordinary people.

As Vonnegut observed, the old individualistic American Dream has been dead for decades, yet the PR machine of the 1% continues to reanimate its dead corpse to push through policies that benefit them, like lowering their already low taxes. Always willing to take a government handout, or a bailout, they demonize any government expenditure that does not benefit them directly.

The Occupy movement, on the other hand, has initiated a grown up conversation about what our values really are and whom our government is meant to serve. It is seeking to define a new American Dream, one that is grown up, responsible, and serves the needs of the 99%. Unlike the old individualistic American Dream, we are envisioning a new one that ties our personal prosperity to the wellbeing of everyone else.